DUCK SOUP: No More

For thirty years I have been a staunch advocate of birth control, family planning, abstinence, voluntary sterilization, and "as a very last-ditch choice" abortion, all for the sake of population control. I am now convinced that I was wrong.No, not about the crowding, believe me, for someone who found the United States far too jam-up in 1970, the sardinization of life has only gotten worse (and this, perhaps, the least crowded continent). And not about the disaster I see bearing down on us like a tractor-trailer headed for a wooly worm, I am more confident than ever that our number boom plus our predilection for simple solutions and easy living will result in catastrophe. Nor do I regret my decision to remain child-free.My error was more fundamental. I believed that individual choices could combine to stop us from destroying ourselves. But I missed the big picture, the truth that we are animals like other animals and therefore obey the rules of ecology just like all the other creatures on earth. More accurately, I accepted the idea that we are biological beings, but imagined that the human brain had lifted us above the simplistic cause and effect which regulates other species. I believed we could think ourselves out of trouble.Unfortunately, the world doesn't work that way. Any population with an expanding food supply increases in numbers. It is true of fish and frogs and mice and microbes and whales and wombats and humans. Since the beginning of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, our food supply has constantly grown and we have exploded across the world stage. Growth may be faster in one place than another, due to cultural choices, longevity, infant mortality, or disease, but it has been inexorable.The only practical and humane way to curb human numbers is to limit food production. (I assume the reader will join with me in rejecting nuclear bombs, mass murder, and biological warfare as messy and unpleasant.)But, can production limits be any more humane? What about the starving millions?Relief workers report in one voice, that starvation is not a function of supply, but a matter of politics and distribution. It is pretty clear that if an increase in food production alone would feed the masses, the post-WWII Green Revolution would have solved the problem for good. But population races on ahead. And an interesting sidelight is that even in the heart of starvation-prone regions, there has been a continual increase in food availability or the population would not have gotten larger. People can't live on nothing.What if we decided to stop growing more food? In short order, the population would stabilize. It would have to. People can't live on nothing. We wouldn't have to convince anyone to practice birth control. We wouldn't have to deny anyone a meal. There would still be hungry people and fat people. Food prices might rise. Housing prices might fall. There is no reason to believe that if we produced as much food next year as we did last year that anyone's menu would necessarily change. We produce far more food today than we did 100 years ago and there are far more people starving.Next we might consider producing one ounce less food per person per year, year after year. The human population would gradually fall. A century from now there might still be 6 billion of us, after the current procreative tidal wave subsides. But we might buy time to solve the problems of distribution and economic justice which impoverish so many of our number, relieved from the stress of constantly needing to deal with expansion. We might buy space for whatâs left of the natural world to re-stabilize in the intersticies between developed land. We might conserve dwindling supplies of petroleum, rare metals, topsoil and water and avoid a head-on crash into the brick wall of resource limits, toward which we are now careening like a blind drunk piloting a jetliner.The potato-chip gobbling idiot in the ad, along with everyone else, might just shift some gears if the punch line promised: "We won't make more."At the U.N. conference on population in Cairo a few years ago we finally arrived at general agreement that human numbers need to be curbed. The next step is to adopt policies with a reasonable chance of success. Not making more would be a healthy first step.

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